Ignorance isn’t always bliss

You know that nightmare?  The one where you haven’t gone to a single class all semester, but find yourself sitting in the final, panicking because you have no idea how to answer any of the questions?  It is a classic stress dream.  Along the lines of showing up at school in your underwear or, for preachers, not being able to find your sermon text amid reams and reams of paper in the pulpit.  We know dreams to be the subconscious working things out sideways, but there is usually a bit of truth, even in a nightmare like the first example, from which we learn the deep truth that ignorance isn’t always bliss.  We learn the same thing in our rather pointed Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Since last Sunday, when we last heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, a few things have happened to Jesus and his disciples that the Lectionary skips over, all of which are based in misunderstanding.

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First, Jesus ends his teaching about what it means to call him the Messiah by telling his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  This promise is nothing to sneeze at, and it will be the source of consternation and confusion for the early church through the entirety of its first generation.  How do we handle the reality that people are dying and the kingdom of God is not fully inaugurated?  We will have to save that for another post, when/if the Lectionary decides to include 9:1.

Next, and more importantly, comes the Transfiguration, which in Mark’s Gospel includes the detail that Peter’s suggestion that they build some houses is based on the fact that he was terrified and didn’t know what to say.  Finally, as Peter, James, John, and Jesus come down the mountain, they find the rest of the disciples scratching their heads over a boy who is possessed by a demon that they could not cast out.  A rather lengthy story, given Mark’s aversion to details, this passage shows us that nobody, as of yet, really understands what this traveling Rabbi, miracle worker, and, hopefully, Messiah, was really about.  “Why couldn’t we cast the demon out?” the disciples as Jesus.  “Because you have no idea how this stuff really works,” Jesus intimates in his reply.

Which brings us finally to Jesus predicting his death and resurrection for a second time.  Mark flat out tells us that the disciples did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask.  The Greek word that is translated at “did not understand,” carries with it the implication that not only did the disciples not get it, but it is likely that they lacked the capacity to ever get it.  This becomes abundantly clear when the disciples next action is to argue over which one of them was greatest.  Jesus just told us that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the greatest human being to ever live, was gong to be betrayed and killed, and their response is to try to figure out who will be there to take his place?  No, this sort of ignorance is not bliss.  This ignorance is totally missing the point of who Jesus was and what he came to do. This ignorance is Calvin flying blissfully down the hill in his wagon, ignorant of the likely painful ending to his ride.

It strikes me that many who claim to follow Jesus in 21st century America are suffering from the same sort of ignorance – following Jesus assuming it brings with it some sort of major award at the end, rather than the truth that Jesus exemplified in his life, that the kingdom of God is where the first are last and the last are first.  Following Jesus isn’t about securing celestial fire insurance or making your country greater than all the rest or about safety, comfort, or security.  Following Jesus is, as we heard last week, about denying yourself and taking up your cross.  Following Jesus is about laying down your life – literally and figuratively – for the sake of the other.  Following Jesus is about embracing vulnerability and trusting fully in God.  To misunderstand this reality is to fundamentally miss the point.

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Some Dark Comedy?

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Almost forgot to give this to you!

There are some lessons, especially in the Old Testament, that if they are read well, can really be hilarious.  The back and forth between God and Moses about the golden calf is probably my favorite, but the 2 Kings story of Elijah’s departure into heaven is a very close second.  The context isn’t particularly conducive to humor, the great prophet Elijah is being taken away from earth, after all.  Yet, the way the author uses the characters and their conversations always makes me chuckle.

On three different occasions, Elijah tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.  Each time, Elisha persists with these words, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Elisha knows that his master and friend is not long for this world, which makes his choice of words so darkly ironic.  Basically, Elisha says, “as long as you’re alive, I’m sticking with you.”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, the prophets there try to tell Elisha what’s up.  “You know the Lord is taking your master today, don’t you?”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, Elisha snaps back, “Yes, I know, now shut up.”  That part always makes me laugh.

Even in the story’s most poignant moment, as Elijah is finally being carried away to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elisha’s response makes me smile.  It is similar to Peter’s nonsensical response to the Transfiguration, as Elisha just blurts out what he sees, “Master!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.”  Funnier yet are the really terrible pieces of art that have been created in response to this story.  The one at the top of this post is pretty good.  So is this one.

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You should do your own Google search on it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

By now, you must be wondering what on earth this blog post is about.  I’ve been wondering that myself along the way.  What I think has hit me this morning is how often we take the personality out of the Bible.  We hear these stories or we read them silently, as if they are just words on a page – matter-of-fact accounts of things about God – as if God doesn’t have a sense of humor, or a personality, or engage with humanity on our own terms.  We tend to think the only emotion God can show is that of anger, but what if that isn’t true?  What if God can offer a wry smile?  What if God has a sarcastic streak?  What if God wants to use things like humor and joy to help tell the story of God’s love for all creation?  Is there some dark comedy in the story of Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind?  I kind of think so.  If you don’t, that’s ok.  Maybe you find humor somewhere else in the great story of God’s steadfast love.

Reading the Signs

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This is, by far, one of my favorite signs to see.  Despite the well worn jokes about its cleanliness and the decidedly unhealthy amount of butter they use to keep the scrambled egg pan lubed, I can’t help myself.  When I see a Waffle House sign, I know I am going to be in for a good meal at a reasonable price.  There are times when that is what I’m looking for, but more often than not, the Waffle House sign serves only as a temptation.

I think the same is true of the signs that Jesus describes in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After three Sundays of apocalyptic parables from Matthew’s Gospel, Advent 1B opens a new Church year, and we begin our every-three-year journey with the Gospel according to Mark.  The themes are similar, as one might expect in a season devoted to being prepared for the Advent of Christ, both his first one on Christmas, and his second Advent at the day of judgment.  It seems reasonable, having heard about it week after week, that we might begin to see the world through eschatological glasses – seeing signs of the end at every turn.

Many a “prophet” has made a lot of money off humankind’s tendency to be tempted by signs.  They’ll point to wars and rumors of wars; earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters; the United Nations and the World Bank; whatever they can cram into the scripture passage they’ve pulled out of context, to convince us that the world is coming to an end, and because you won’t need money after the coming of the Son of Man, you should probably send yours their way.

Like a Waffle House sign on the interstate at 2:30 in the afternoon, nothing good comes from following these temptations.  Jesus is clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  When he invites his disciples to “keep alert,” the Greek is more simply, “stay awake.”  When we are looking for signs, we will always find them.  Rather, Jesus is inviting his disciples, and us, to keep at the work of the Kingdom: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, proclaiming the Good News; because the signs will trick us, we do not know the day or the hour, but when he comes, like a thief in the night, our laziness will not be rewarded.

Supersaturated life

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You may remember from high school science class that a supersaturated solution is one in which more of something is dissolved in a liquid than could be under normal conditions.  The solution sits in supersaturation unless and until something acts upon it to force the excess to precipitate out, or, more spectacularly shown in the gif above, crystallization occurs.  If you have ever enjoyed a piece of rock candy, you have experienced a crystallized supersaturated solution.  In two of our lessons on Sunday, we learn that the Kingdom of God is something like that.

Psalm 23, everybody’s second favorite Olde English thing (next to a good Thug Life tattoo) is often remembered for the “valley of the shadow of death” in verse 4, but I love Psalm 23 because of verse 5.  The Book of Common Prayer translation reads thusly,

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

God’s grace supersaturates our lives such that feasts can be enjoyed right in the midst of our enemies.  Our heads, like those of kings, are anointed with oil.  Our cup runneth over.  The Hebrew word there is literally translated as “saturated.”  Its root word carries connotations of abundance, soaking wet, and drunkenness.  The cup that God has prepared for us, even in the valley of death, right in the sight of our detractors, remains abundantly full.  In God, even in the midst of hardship, our blessings are supersaturated.

Our Gospel lesson from John 10 suggests something similar.  Jesus, you’ll recall, is standing in the presence of his enemies when he tells the man born blind, the Pharisees, and anyone who would here, that he has come into the world so that we might have abundant life.  The Greek here suggests excessiveness, superabundance, and even superfluousness.  God’s grace acts as a supersaturated solution in our lives.  When acted upon by outside forces, it sometimes precipitates out so that in the midst of hardship we can see it, taste it, and feel it.  Sometimes, the pressure to lose sight of it is so great that it might have to crystallize in spectacular fashion.  I think maybe that’s what miracles are all about.

This Sunday, we will hear about the overflowing love of God.  We’ll be reminded that even in the hard times, God’s grace does not shy away.  Once again, we will bring to mind the gift of abundant life that God offers each of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Even as we give up on resurrection accounts, we will hear of the power of Easter,  the abundant resurrected life that God desires to pour out on all of humanity.

Practicing Piety in a Pluralistic Society

You’ll have to pardon the alliterative and rhyming nature of this post title, but it just came so easily, I couldn’t help but use it.  As I try to get back in the saddle of blogging after a week long bout with writer’s block, I’m also feeling the strong pressure of another busy week.  While preparing to make the move from Associate Rector at a Pastoral-Leaning-Pastoral/Program size congregation to Rector of a Program-Leaning-Pastoral/Program size congregation, there were many who warned me of the busyness that would come, and boy weren’t they kidding.  Some of it is startup stuff: meeting parish leaders, attending programs events, learning names, etc., some of it is just the pace of play in a congregation that should really have two priests working alongside a rock-solid lay staff, but a lot of it is just the way things work when you are the first phone call and the last desk upon which the buck stops.  I’m enjoying the work, please don’t get me wrong, but I’m learning that there will always be more to do than hours in the day.

Having gotten that trademarked Long Steve Pankey Aside out of the way, here’s my point.  In the midst of the busyness of life, we are staring down the barrel of a season that invites us to slow down.  Lent will be upon us in two short days.  Ash Wednesday, though quite late this year, is here.  As I work on preparing my homily for one of my favorite services of the year, I am reminded of the last time it fell on the same day as my wedding anniversary.  It was March 1, 2006, and I was in my middler year of seminary.  SHW and I planned to go out for Indian after the Ash Wednesday service in my Field Ed parish, and we struggled quite a bit about the right thing to do.  Would the staff at the restaurant think we were mocking their culture if we came in with black dots on our foreheads (my Rector was keen on the Blob)?

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Added to that concern, was the reality that in the Gospel lesson appointed for every Ash Wednesday, Jesus makes a clear injunction against showy acts of piety.  It seems that Jesus would have us return to our seats and immediately remove the ashen smudge from our foreheads.  What is a faithful disciple to do about practicing their piety in a pluralistic society?  The more I’ve thought about this in the eleven years since that last March 1 Ash Wednesday, the more I’m beginning to think that maybe none of us should be afraid of being faithful to our faith tradition.  In the same way we shouldn’t be fearful or self-righteous about a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or a Sikh wearing a turban, neither should we be fearful about wearing the ashen cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  Rather than asking anyone to water down their own faith tradition, we should honor the other just as we are faithful to our own.

With two kids in tow, we probably won’t be going out for Indian this year, but the question will remain every Ash Wednesday.  Will you wear your cross this Wednesday?

If Christ is King

After a challenging week for liberal preachers toeing the line between being pastorally available to the full range of their membership and offering a prophetic word in light of an escalation in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-black, anti-latino, anti-unfortunately, the list goes on verbal, graffiti, and even physical attacks, this week, the liturgical calendar offers us the relatively new feast of Christ the King.  Also known as the Reign of Christ, this Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, invites us to spend some intentional time thinking about what it means to be members of the cosmic and infinite Kingdom of God even as we live in a particular time and place.  For American Christians in 2016, this question seems to be more timely than ever.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States by a majority of Christian voters has raised the question of what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Christian ethicists will have a field day studying the way in which Christians, conservative and liberal, weighed the goods in conflict between Trump’s clearly anti-Kingdom of God rhetoric regarding minority populations and his purported stances on abortion, LGBT rights, and the economy’s ability to lift up impoverished people.  While it seems clear to me that Jesus’ commandment to love one another shows nearly all of his platform to be antithetical to the Gospel, I can see how for some single-issue voters, my opinion is equally lacking.

Still, whether you voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, someone else or nobody at all, the reality is that while we live under the laws of 21st century America, our citizenship is, above all, in the Kingdom of God, with Christ as our King, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  We are, as the Collect for Proper 29 says, divided and enslaved by sin, and the events of the last week have been the work of the Devil to further divide us: first from one another and ultimately from God.  The work of the Church, on the other hand, as described in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer is exactly the opposite.  As members of God’s Kingdom, our mission is the restoration of relationships.  Perhaps, as we continue to face the problems of our time; as we hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, a stark reminder of what happens when religion and politics mix; as we prepare for Advent and the coming of Jesus both as vulnerable child and as King of kings, we, disciples of Christ and heirs of the Kingdom, would do well to commit to working against the sin of division and working toward the unity that can only come when we follow Jesus Christ as King and Lord.

Fruitfulness

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There is great danger in Paul’s image of the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and especially self-control are ripe for the abuse of works righteousness.  It is easy to take this fruit and turn it into an ethical treatise on how one must live one’s life.  This is especially true in the context of the whole lesson from Galatians 5 that is appointed for Proper 8c.  It is tempting to take this fruit, allow it to rot, and to chuck it at other disciples who we have deemed “not fruitful.”

But this is a serious misreading of the text because the reality, at least my view of it, isn’t that an apple tree works to make apples, but that an apple tree is because it produces apples.  Does that make sense?  Let me say it another way.  The fruit of the Spirit are precisely that, of the Spirit.  They are in no way the result of our own work, but simply what happens to those who have been caught up in the power of the Spirit.  These laudable qualities, “against which there is no law,” are the natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

That being said, it is no doubt true that we can work to cultivate the fruit tree.  When we are walking close to the will of God, fertilized by the Word, we will no doubt produce better fruit in higher yields, but even when the Father seems far away, even when the Word is hard to hear, the Spirit remains, working within us to unite us to the Father.  As Paul wrote to open this passage (and is reiterated strongly in Romans 8), we have been set free in Christ.  We are set free such that the Spirit will produce fruit in our lives, even as we attempt to yoke ourselves once again to the bad soil of self-preservation.  As Christians, it is in our very nature to produce good fruit, the outpouring of the Spirit.  So relax.  Don’t work so hard to do what you can’t help but do in God, and instead, focus on the Spirit at work within you.  Allow yourself to be set free to let the Spirit produce in abundance.